Remembering the Thai-Chinese journey through Qing Ming festival

As the Qing Ming festival draws to a close among Thailand's ethnic Chinese population, families marking the occasion reflect on the treacherous journeys that brought their ancestors to Thai shores, and the significant role the community plays in the kingdom today

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April 16, 2021
Remembering the Thai-Chinese journey through Qing Ming festival
At this Chinese cemetery in Ratchaburi, central Thailand, a Buddhist monk comes to bless the tomb, a Talipot fan covering his face as he gives a prayer, in a mix between Chinese tradition and Theravada Buddhism. Photo: Wanpen Pajai

On a deserted plain, a shower of rainbow confetti rains down. That’s followed by flower petals and then exploding firecrackers to top it off, all in the company of relatives. 

Beneath that deserted plain, a tomb is encased in a grass mountain. The sun is not kind, rather scorching in April. In Thailand, it’s the peak of summer, just before the Thai new year Songkran. But to the north, in China where the Qing Ming festival being marked on this day originated, this month would make for a breezier, springtime outdoor gathering. 

Also known as Tomb Sweeping Day, Qing Ming is a month-long festival marked in the Chinese calendar where worshippers go to their ancestors’ graves to pay respects – an event observed from March 20 to April 18 this year. 

Though many ethnic Chinese have seamlessly assimilated as Thais over generations, they maintain their cultural differences. On display during Qing Ming is their preference for burial, traditionally laying the dead to rest in Chinese-style cemetaries found dotted across Southeast Asia, as opposed to cremating bodies as typically preferred by Thais.

Qing Ming, translating to clear and bright in English, is an annual event that prompts worshippers to reflect on their ancestor’s journey – in this case, from southern China to Southeast Asia. 

It’s been over 200 years since the ships started to sail off from Shantou to the ASEAN region. The majority of people out of Shantou are from Teochew descent,” Sangchai Sotthavarakul, chairman of the Teochew Association of Thailand, told the Globe. “From that moment on, our ancestors held Bangkok to be the main location for doing business.” 

Throughout the country, tomb-sweeping is hosted in Chinese cemeteries, spaces that are cared for by ethnic Chinese associations. Ethnic Chinese split up into different groupings, based on where their ancestors came from in the regions that make up China, ranging from Teochew, to Hainanese and Hakka. Teochew form the largest part of Thailand’s over 9 million ethnic Chinese population – the largest in Southeast Asia – making up 56%, followed by Hakka at 16%. 

A turbulent time in China, combined with increased sea travel from Shantou, a coastal province in the south, meant that the population of Chinese in Thailand tripled between the 18th and 19th century. As of 1932, Thai-Chinese numbered around 1.6 million, making up 12.2% of the population

Inevitably, the need for traditional graveyards emerged – leading to the emergence of those spaces being used by families on that scorching April day. 

Teochew Cemetery, also known as the Wat Don graveyard, is located in Bangkok’s central business district. Photo: Wanpen Pajai
With the large open-air space and green cover, it’s been used as a community space for exercise and other activities. Photo: Wanpen Pajai
Photo: Wanpen Pajai

The Teochew cemetery in Bangkok’s Sathon district is an oasis, loaded with greenery and elements of traditional Chinese architecture. Once the outskirts of the city, the 132-rai (52-acre) space is now part of the central business district. Now, the graveyard is a multi-purpose community space with running paths – the scene makes for an odd juxtaposition of people jogging next to rows of tombstones. 

Seeing the strips of coloured paper on the grave shows they’ve been visited, a sign that the children and grandchildren have shown their respect and gratitude. Lung, along with her sister and granddaughter, sat together folding pieces of golden paper into intricate shapes. Of Thai-Chinese of Teochew descent, they were paying respects in front of the tomb for bodies in which families have not been identified or have no living relatives left, and are therefore buried together at the centre of the cemetery.

“[Our ancestors] really came with only a pillow and a mat,” said Lung. “[My parents] had 11 children. Now there are five of us left. They did all sorts – sold coal, sold recycled glass bottles to gain money. Just like a soap opera. Chinese people then did everything that generated income.”  

The Qing Ming Festival centres on paying respect and showing gratitude to ancestors, one of the fundamental traits of Confucianism. For Lung and other ethnic Chinese in Thailand, reminiscing about ancestors includes recounting their journey as immigrants to the kingdom.

“At the Wat Don cemetery, most of the bodies passed away no older than at the age of 50. There’s very few that lived past 60, 70, or 80. That’s because of the work ethic,” said Sangchai. The cemetery holds over 10,000 tombs, most of which are first-generation immigrants from the early 1900s. 

“A day has 24 hours, if a day had 30 hours, they would work for 30 hours. Therefore, they had short life expectancy.” 

Lung (left), along with her sister and granddaughter, sit folding pieces of golden paper into intricate shapes at the Teochew Cemetery. Photo: Wanpen Pajai

The earliest history of ethnic Chinese in Thailand dates back to the Ayutthaya years between 1350-1767, the first known era when Chinese traders arrived. Later, larger waves of migration occured in the 19th and 20th centuries due to Chinese internal strife, namely the collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1911, occupation during World War II, the spread of communism and the failures of Mao’s economic policies. 

“I still remember the Japanese coming to raid the area near my home,” said Mui, at a cemetery in Chantaburi province. 

By the year 1940, Japan had forcibly occupied more than two-thirds of China during the Sino-Japanese war between 1937-45. It was that chaos that Mui fled at the age of 18, travelling mostly by boat to get to Thailand. Now 92 years old, Mui left her home in Shantou in 1947 and has lived in Chantaburi province ever since. 

“I left China for Thailand with my father as a teenager. There wasn’t really an option to stay or go. It felt like months on the trip,” Mui recalled. “When I arrived in Thailand, everything was alien. Starting from nothing, no possessions or understanding of the language. Starting from there.”

Far from being united in support of the home government, the Chinese in Siam were sharply divided into speech groups with little national, as opposed to regional, loyalty

William Skinner, author of the thin but insightful 1957 paper published in the Journal of Asian Studies, Chinese Assimilation and Thai Politics, narrates the policies for Chinese assimilation in Thailand, from relative equanimity during the Ayutthaya period, to repression during nationalistic periods.  

“Assimilation prior to the twentieth century was also facilitated by the absence of nationalist sentiment among the Chinese residents in Siam,” Skinner wrote. “Far from being united in support of the home government, the Chinese in Siam were sharply divided into speech groups with little national, as opposed to regional, loyalty.”

Skinner argues that throughout Thailand’s history, Thai kings with absolute power adopted policies that were designed to attract ethnic Chinese to the Thai ruling class and cement their loyalty to the throne. 

Later on, the accommodation of ethnic Chinese ebbed and flowed with each government and political situation. Starting under King Wachirawut’s reign from 1910-1925, a surge of Thai nationalism and sinophobia was seen through ethnocentrism that emphasised the differences between the Chinese and Thai. 

During the first administration of military leader and Prime Minister Plaek Phibunsongkhram from 1938-1944, Sinophobic policies were implemented to promote Thai nationalism during the Thai Cultural Revolution that saw the kingdom changing its name from Siam to Thailand and modernising cultural etiquettes. During Field Marshal P’s (Phibun’s) second administration, from 1948-1957, the anti-Chinese campaign resumed amidst Cold War tensions as Thailand feared the growth of communism within its borders.

A Chinese cemetery in Ratchaburi, a province in central Thailand. Photo: Wanpen Pajai
A Chinese cemetery in Ratchaburi, a province in central Thailand. Photo: Wanpen Pajai
Paper versions of everyday items waiting to be burned. Photo: Wanpen Pajai

Still, the overarching theme for Thai policies towards ethnic Chinese was one that encouraged and promoted assimilation through naturalisation and restrictions on educational segregation. Skinner’s article, published in 1957, ends by describing the connections between the Thai political elite and Chinese businessmen tightening as their reciprocal relationship grew. From that point onwards, Thai-Chinese owned businesses rocketed to dominate the economy. 

“King Rama 9 [previous King Bhumibol] loved ethnic Chinese people, as if he loved his own sons and daughters. He didn’t segregate our skin colour or ethnicity,” Sangchai explained. “Our ethnic Chinese people are hardworking, the reason we have [what we do] today is because of cooperation and helping each other out – ka ki nung in Teochew, which translates to our own people.” 

Everyone has gratitude for and commemorates our ancestors. Absolutely. If we didn’t have them, that migrated to Thailand, we would have all been dead in China. None of us would be left

For Sangchai, chairman of the Teochew association, this represents the bigger picture of success amongst ethnic Chinese in Thailand. Today, Thai-Chinese family conglomerates hold most of Thailand’s economic clout, with powerful dynasties such as the Chearavanont (Charoen Pokphand Group) family, the Yoovidhya (Red Bull) family, and the Sirivadhanabhakdi (Chang Beer) family all hailing from a Chinese background. 

“Charoen Pokphand Group and Chang Beer and Bangkok Bank are all Teochew. They didn’t have inheritance, but they built it up with honesty and a hard-working attitude with a competitive spirit,” said Sangchai.

Assimilation across Thai-Chinese families has been high, with most adopting a Thai last name and younger generations no longer speaking the original dialect. But even if the next generation is ever more localised than the last, Sangchai says those family bonds remain strong. 

“Everyone has gratitude for and commemorates our ancestors. Absolutely,” said Saengchai. “If we didn’t have them, that migrated to Thailand, we would have all been dead in China. None of us would be left.”  

An oven used to burn paper items. Photo: Wanpen Pajai

The liveliness of the Teochew cemetery in Bangkok is an exception to the rule. In other provinces, the association-run cemetery culture has dwindled as ethnic Chinese have become more assimilated into the Thai cultural landscape.

But with China’s reemergence at a state level in the region, these underlying connections are increasingly invoked by promoters on both sides. In Sino-Thai diplomacy, familial metaphors are often used to emphasise the intimacy between the two countries, such as “Thai and China as one family”. 

For actual families in Thailand, this combined identity is very real. 

The gathering at the graveyard for Qing Ming includes cleaning the tombstone, praying, and giving offerings to your ancestors that could range from paper Porsches to paper Rolexes. It’s a sudden submersion into Chinese traditions that are kept at bay day-to-day, especially for younger generations. 

For Mew, a 25-year-old fourth-generation Thai-Chinese, Qing Ming feels like a cultural adventure and rekindling with her heritage. 

“I feel quite privileged. I’m grateful for my ancestors who have migrated to Thailand, starting from nothing at all to building up everything,” said Mew, along with her grandmother. “Now, there’s less of the next generation joining in.”

The festival brings together families, young and old, to reminisce about the ancestors – those that chose to be buried the Chinese way, those who set a path for their descendents living today. 

While a connection to Chinese heritage may be weakening with each new generation of Thai-Chinese, Qing Ming offers a reminder of those that brought them to the kingdom. 

“I’m not sure how much longer the [Qing Ming festival] will continue on for my family,” said Mew. “But I appreciate it. Through offerings and stories shared, your Chinese and family’s heritage shines through for a day.”

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